William Warfield was known in Fort Wayne in the early 1900s as an entrepreneur who was well-respected in the community. He died in 1936. (Photo courtesy of Hana Stith)

Early African Americans find local life a constant struggle

By Shannon King of The News-Sentinel

By 1910, William Warfield had built a solid life for his family.

Through odd jobs, such as cleaning doctors' offices and drugstores, Warfield purchased a 21-room, three-story home on East Douglas Street.

He also had written several songs, which are registered with the Library of Congress.

Warfield was one of 572 African Americans who lived in Fort Wayne at that time, trying to build a better life for themselves.

But it wasn't always easy, said Hana Stith, a retired teacher who is compiling the history of African Americans in the city.

Stith said Warfield was the exception in an era when blacks were facing difficult times.

"Things were tough," Stith said. "There was no decent housing, minimal jobs and small wages."

"I don't think blacks were content back then, by any means," said Miles Edwards, a member of the Fort Wayne African/African American Historical Society. "But they were able to deal with the hand that life had dealt them. They had to be strong to survive the things they were going through."

Before 1910, the African-American population was small. Fort Wayne residents had voted in favor of excluding African Americans from the state in the 1851 Indiana Constitution.

The black population began to grow after the 13th and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution were passed, which abolished slavery and declared African Americans citizens of this country.

By 1900, there were 276 African Americans in Fort Wayne. The overall population was 45,115. Part of the reason for the increase was the migration of African Americans moving from the South.

Although little is known about African-American life during this period, documents show they mostly worked in hotels and domestic service, and a few had jobs with the old Bass Foundry.

The average salary was about 20 cents an hour.

African Americans basically kept to themselves and only mingled with whites in the city when they were working for them.

"Blacks were looked down upon as second-class citizens, and most recreation was in the church," Stith said.

There were only two churches for African Americans at the time — Turner Chapel A.M.E. and Mount Olive Baptist Church.

African Americans also attended the Garity, a local movie theater that had seats in the back reserved for them. On weekends, Stith said, they often had picnics in old Robison Park.

By the end of the decade, Warfield and a few others had created a strong presence in the city, Stith said.

Warfield was a writer and editor of The Vindicator, an African-American publication that began in 1913. He later went on to write "We Love Old Fort Wayne."

The song was written in honor of the city's 150th birthday.

By the 1920s, the African-American population had grown to 1,450, and job opportunities began to expand with the help of the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center.

The facility, also located on Douglas Street, was a place where African Americans could gather for recreation and job training.

The center also was a place where children learned about history and was home to a 20-piece orchestra that played at African-American churches in Fort Wayne, Edwards said.

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